Several months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Antarctica with a friend and colleague, with one of our polar expedition client companies. The very thought of going almost completely offline for two weeks was anxiety-inducing, but I’m glad that didn’t stop us from going. It turned out to be the trip of a lifetime, and I learned something very important about the real impact stress was having in my life.
Passengers with Quark Expeditions hike the icy Antarctic Peninsula, 2016.
We only decided to go two months ahead of the trip, so our departure date came on fast. I lay awake at night worrying…
- How would I keep in touch with my kids?
- Could I possibly get my other clients looked after in time and make alternate arrangements when the person who would usually look after things for me was coming with me?
- Would Trevor be okay running our other business on his own?
- Could we count on staff to show up for him in our busiest time of year?
- Would my father, who was in cancer treatment at the time, be okay until I got back? (At first, I said I wouldn’t go. My dad was having none of that and said he’d never forgive me if I didn’t. So off I went.)
There are a million things to consider when preparing for a trip of this magnitude (Richard wrote about a few of the big ones here), but for me, the thought of going offline in a time when so much was going on in our lives was nearly paralyzing.
At least, at first.
As we packed and planned, I started to warm up to the idea of taking a bit of a break from the constant deluge of stress and anxiety inherent to being “always on.” I fantasized about an entire day (or two, even!) without panicked phone calls from work, kids coming home sick from school, late homework notes, more bad news about my parents’ health, or legal crap (as we were involved in a lawsuit over the scam business we’d purchased earlier last year).
Getting away from it all, even briefly, began to sound like an okay idea.
It had been about four years since I’d last gone completely offline, when we’d taken the kids to Disney in Florida. At the time, I worked for an agency, so it was a lot easier to get away with the knowledge that I could simply hand off my accounts to someone else for five days. That freedom just doesn’t exist for a lot of self-employed people.
Digitally detoxing at Disney World, circa 2013.
Even so, we weren’t completely offline on that trip; we still used TripAdvisor to find places to eat and things to do, and checked in with family and friends on Facebook. (You might remember that Facebook was a nicer place to be back then, in 2013. It was actually used for cat memes and clumsy videos and pics of your kids more often than as a platform for inciting political arguments and spreading misinformation like wildfire.)
Yes, the prospect of completely disconnecting for a few weeks started to look mighty attractive indeed.
And you know what? It was an incredible experience–so much so that I disconnected my Facebook again for an entire month this spring. I plan on doing this now whenever I feel it’s time; when my body tells me I need a break.
Quark Expeditions passengers explore and visit Gentoo penguin colonies in the shadow of icy peaks on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Miranda Miller
Because that’s the thing that was most surprising for me. I knew Antarctica would be peaceful and will write a post on that some day, as it’s really a story (or several) on its own. Traveling with Quark Expeditions meant we didn’t have to worry about a thing the entire trip. From morning til night, we were told what our activity and food options were, how we should dress for the weather, where we could go on land, what we were seeing and experiencing around us. There were no decisions to be made. No difficult choices to ponder. No alternative outcomes to weigh and consider.
It was a fast paced adventure, but also totally and completely relaxing in that or the first time in many years, someone else was calling the shots and I was free to just float along and enjoy the ride.
I was even more taken aback than usual, then, with the completely visceral reaction I had to my first stressful phone call, once we were back in Ushuaia and checked into a hotel.
We’d planned to stay at a zen-like hotel overlooking the town of Ushuaia, our Argentinian port for the Antarctic expedition. The hotel is 800 meters above sea level, surrounded by walking trails in the Cerro Alarkén nature reserve. It was a pretty spectacular place to decompress and try to digest everything we’d seen and done (and the thousands of photos and videos we’d taken) over the last two weeks.
I called my kids as soon as we got to the hotel and had the happy reunion I’d been craving. The next call was bad news, though. The kind of bad news I’d been blocking out for two weeks. The kind of bad news that I’d become used to just taking in and rolling with for too long, because there had been far too much bad news recently.
But this time, I actually felt my heart rate speed up. I felt my face flush red; I started perspiring a little. My face was pulled into a frown and I felt that happening. It was such a foreign feeling at first, but in seconds it all came flooding back. The tensed shoulders that used to ache constantly. The flood of negativity that comes with feeling powerless to change a shitty situation. The heaviness in my limbs that says sure, it might feel great to take a walk and enjoy this gorgeous place, but we’re so tired now… maybe you should just lay down instead.
It was all of the stress I’d dismissed as emotional and mental for years in living colour, as physical ailment. And I realized, until two weeks ago, this is how I felt ALL THE TIME.
I liken it now to gifted storyteller Allie Brosh’s ‘Sneaky Hate Spiral,’ in which, as she describes: “Your worn patience plus the inability to blame anything for your misery causes a chain reaction to take place inside of you.” Stress is like that. It piles on, and piles on–often just small things on their own, but the cumulative effect can be crippling. And as I learned after visiting Antarctica, it can have a very real physical effect on you.
Insomnia was a huge part of that physical manifestation of stress for me. The fact that I was up half the night, every night, ruminating over stressful shit pretty much gave that one away.
But I really didn’t understand the physical toll stress was taking on me all the time until I was able to get away from it all for a few weeks.
Doing a digital detox once in a while has become a part of my routine. The opportunity to truly get away from all media by visiting Antarctica, where we couldn’t possibly even accidentally see a television airing stressful news or hear a negative story on the radio, was a rare occurrence. I’m not sure I’ll ever be that “away from it all” again in my lifetime.
But there are things we can control, and we can digitally detox in smaller doses:
- Take a scheduled social media vacation of one week to one month. Take the apps off your phone. Resist the urge to “just quickly see what’s going on.”
- Plan how you’re going to do any work or other online checking you absolutely need to do, without getting drawn into the extra things that are sources of stress, worry or anxiety for you.
- At least cut back if you can’t completely cut off. Start small and get your family involved so it’s something you all do together. Outlaw phones at the table during meals. Take device-free walks together.
- Ban the Internet for 3 hours before bedtime to give yourself time to unwind.
For me, taking a few bigger steps towards a less connected lifestyle was huge. Push back against people who expect you to be online at all hours and give you grief. Set an autoresponder scheduled for your evenings that notifies people they can expect to hear back from you within one business day (are people going to actually die if you do this? No? Then one business day is a perfectly acceptable timeframe for email responses).
Let the people around you know there are boundaries in conversation at times, if this is an issue. Terrible things are happening the world over: war, nasty politics, famine, and the greatest financial inequality in the history of man. I don’t want you to ignore these things, because we can’t become an apathetic flock of sheep. But I do want you to understand that you can’t fight every fight, all the time. You are a more compassionate and effective person when you put yourself first and allow yourself time to step out of the cycle of stress and anxiety, coming back to those situations with a clear mind and a fresh outlook.
Pay attention when life’s neverending stressors threatening to overwhelm. We can’t stop the tide from coming, but can step back from it now and again and stop fighting it.
Allowing yourself the time and space to do a digital detox turns stress into a place you visit now and again, when you need to deal with it and solve those problems. You don’t have to live there all the time.
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